Operation Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening) was the final showcase and last stand of the panzers. Six Waffen SS divisions were committed. Sixth SS Panzer Army had I SS Panzer Corps with Leibstandarte and Hitler Jugend: parent and child. The II SS Panzer Corps included Das Reich and Hohenstaufen, old and new avatars of Himmler’s personal army. Gille’s corps was initially assigned to Balck’s 6th Army, alongside III Panzer Corps with two of the army’s originals: 1st and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Put together, it added up to around 600 AFVs, the best available. Leibstandarte still boasted its battalion of 36 Tiger Bs. Hitler Jugend had an attached battalion of 31 Jagdpanzer IVs and 11 Jagdpanther.
But the transfer of men and material was disrupted at every turn by Allied air attacks, and the consequences of earlier attacks, on a railway network no longer capable of sustaining the rapid, reliable, large-scale troop movements of 1942-43. Not until March 6 was the main German attack ready—and then almost 300 of its tanks and assault guns reached the front only during the next week.
Hitler entertained hopes of not merely relieving Budapest, but crossing the Danube, continuing into Romania, and recapturing those oil fields as well. Reality was a last-ditch breakout attempt on February 11 by what remained of the city’s garrison. Fewer than 1,000 men reached German lines. The commander, seeking to escape through the city sewer system, was driven to the surface by flooding and unheroic ally surrendered the next day.
At least with Budapest gone the panzers were free to concentrate on their Soviet opponents—if they were able to reach them. The weather had broken in late February. Rain and melting snow softened the ground so badly that Balck established “road courts-martial,” with the power to execute out of hand anyone responsible for road maintenance who failed in that duty. Morale did not improve. Nor did the offensive make much initial progress as the heavier AFVs became bogged down on roads Dietrich described as “catastrophic” or sank up to their turrets in the marshy fields. The panzer grenadiers took heavy losses advancing on foot against a well-developed defensive system manned by no fewer than 16 rifle divisions. By the second day they had managed to open enough gaps for the panzers to move through. By the third day Hitler Jugend achieved a local breakthrough when a dozen of its heavy tank destroyers took out a Soviet antitank screen and the reconnaissance battalion’s half-tracks machine-gunned and drove over the fleeing Russians in a style reminiscent of eighteenth-century cavalry. But the advance stopped at the Sio Canal, connecting Lake Balaton with the Danube.
In the absence of air and artillery support, the panzers were compelled to push right up to the canal banks to cover the infantry as they crossed. That brought them into killing range of Soviet antitank guns, and AFVs were no longer expendable assets. Where they were forced to retreat, the rubber boats of the assault troops were easy targets. Elsewhere Das Reich and Hohenstaufen were stymied. Leibstandarte managed to establish a bridgehead, and its pioneers managed to put a bridge across the Sio. But field bridging equipment had long since failed to keep pace with the panzers’ increasing weight. The bridge promptly collapsed. Only heroic improvisation under heavy fire reopened it sufficiently to funnel forward tank destroyers able to counter the T-34/85s that for three days kept counterattacking what was in any case a foothold to nowhere. On March 15, Dietrich and his staff ordered a withdrawal, intending to shift the army’s Schwerpunkt to II SS Panzer Corps. On March 16 it ceased to matter.
The Soviets had been able to contain Spring Awakening without committing their sector reserves. Instead those forces were concentrated west of Budapest, on the German left flank and rear. On March 14, Gille’s corps reported the threat. On March 16, under cover of a heavy fog, a million men and 1,699 armored vehicles tore a 20-mile hole in the Axis defenses and kept going. Balck, an operational optimist, had been too engaged by Spring Awakening’s chimerical prospects to retain deployable German armored reserves. By the time he, Dietrich, and Hitler could agree on the timing and direction of a counterattack, its prospects were long gone and the situation had deteriorated to sauve qui peut.
Viking was almost surrounded. Its CO pulled back in defiance of Hitler’s order to stand fast, but it was Hohenstaufen’s intervention that enabled Viking’s remnants to withdraw. The IV and II SS Panzer Corps in turn held open a corridor long enough for most of the Germans cut off by the Soviet offensive to escape. That included all that was left of 1st Panzer Division—11,473 men and exactly one operational tank, as of April 1. Leibstandarte and Das Reich, the farthest east of the Panzers, managed to bring out the men able to walk.
Hohenstaufen’s panzer regiment alone accounted for more than 100 verified kills in the course of the fighting. But 6th SS Panzer Army was reduced to fewer than 100 AFVs. More than 1,000 tanks and assault guns, Hungarian as well as German, fell to the Soviets. Relatively few had been knocked out. It was empty fuel tanks, engine breakdowns, and “General Mud” that finished off the panzers. The Russians captured enough usable tanks to put them into service against their former owners.
The German front in the south was never reestablished. For the next six weeks, operations amounted to a fighting withdrawal to, then past, Vienna. The Germans still had some sting in their tails. The last remaining tanks of Leibstandarte, predictably led in person by Peiper, retook a few villages around Sankt Pölten. For the panzers, SS or army, the primary mission nevertheless became covering the retreat as long as possible, then, wherever possible, pulling back quickly enough to surrender to the Americans. But the story of those final days is best expressed in the myth of the chamber pot.
On March 27, Hitler, enraged by the failure of his chosen troops in Hungary, ordered Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Hohenstaufen, and Hitler Jugend to remove the cuff titles bearing their division names. The alleged response exists in many versions involving combinations of a chamber pot full of armbands and high decorations being sent to the Führer’s headquarters—sometimes accompanied by a severed arm, and sometimes by the injunction “kiss my ass.”
Reality was predictably less spectacular. The most credible version has Dietrich saying with tear-filled eyes, “So this is the thanks for everything,” and ordering the morale-killing message not to be passed to his men. The chamber pot and the epithet are gestures of defiance borrowed and adapted from Goethe’s Sturm und Drang play Götz von Berlichingen—a bit of wishful thinking by postwar SS nostalgists. Ironically, the divisions had been ordered to remove their armbands for security purposes when sent to Hungary. Many replacements never even received them.
From Stavka’s perspective, Hitler could not have been more obliging had he been on Stalin’s payroll. The Soviet High Command’s plan to finish the war dated from October, and involved two major offensives. The secondary attack would be mounted against East Prussia; the main one across Poland. In a decision with as many postwar implications as military aspects, Zukhov and Konev, personal and professional rivals since the war’s early days, were each assigned command of a front under Stalin’s direct command—objective Berlin.
Given the Soviets’ overwhelming numerical superiority, developed operational effectiveness, and improving logistical capabilities, the Germans could do little but play out the hand, as a trumped bridge player tosses meaningless cards onto the table. Even before Gille was transferred to Hungary, Guderian’s concept of a mobile defensive battle fought by a strong central reserve was arguably two years behind the times. Its potential was further diminished when the army group commanders concentrated four more mechanized divisions closely behind what they considered vital sectors. That approach, a variant of the Model model, was arguably only a year out of date. Its success depended on a far closer balance of quality and quantity than existed in 1945. The dispersed panzers were in fact a security blanket for an infantry who might stand to a finish—but whose chances of withstanding a major attack were limited to the point of being imaginary.
The main Soviet offensive made five miles in the first three hours of January 12. By the end of January 13, the breakthrough was 25 miles deep. The panzer divisions in its way were overwhelmed, able to do no more than fight for mere survival. Zukhov’s 26th Guards Rifle Corps evoked the panzers’ glory days by seizing a vital bridge before German engineers could throw the demolition switches. Warsaw fell on January 17, and Hitler’s blind rage led him to turn Guderian over to the Gestapo for interrogation, albeit briefly. On January 20, Konev’s spearheads entered Silesia. By January 31, Zukhov was on the Oder at Küstrin, 40 miles from Berlin.
The primary German response, initiated by Hitler, was to transfer the newly organized Grossdeutschland Corps from East Prussia. With Grossdeutschland, Brandenburg and Hermann Göring Divisions also under command, it went into action on January 16. But the trains carrying its rear echelon were intercepted by Soviet tanks; the best it was able to do was to serve as a rallying point for disorganized soldiers and fleeing civilians. Ever-dividing, ever-shrinking pockets, most coalesced around a couple of tanks, perhaps some half-tracks, and a company or so of panzer grenadiers, made their way toward the Oder, hoping above all to avoid attracting Soviet attention. The lucky ones beat Zukhov by a day or two.
To the north the Russian attack took five days to break through a German defense, enervated by the withdrawal of its armored reserve. As Russian tanks reached the Baltic, the Germans withdrew in the only direction open to them—eastward, into Königsberg. And the near-forgotten Courland Pocket, with its two forlorn panzer divisions, stood to, waiting for the Russians to finish it.
The Red Army’s pause at the end of January was in part to refresh its logistics, in part to secure its flanks, and in part to structure its internal priorities. The attacks into Pomerania and Silesia in February and March scarcely make a footnote to the story of Hitler’s panzers, apart from their success in screening a withdrawal- cum-evacuation into the relatively safe zone of the Sudetenland. The battle for Berlin was another matter. The Reich’s capital was defended by the Wehrmacht’s flotsam: boys and old men, convalescents and comb-outs, foreigners fighting with ropes around their necks, equipped with anything handy. Factories and rail sidings were full of armored vehicles that could not be moved for lack of fuel and fear of air attack.
Guderian’s hopes of forming new reserves by transferring divisions from the West and evacuating Courland were not much less delusional than the Führer’s. His plans for a local spoiling attack to disrupt the Russians on Berlin’s doorstep primarily featured winning a screaming argument with Hitler. The attack itself collapsed within days—a predictable outcome given its limited striking power.
The final Russian offensive began on April 16. It was still a Zukhov- Konev derby, with the final prize the Reichstag. Familiar numbers flash across the screen: 21st Panzer Division, 25th Panzer Grenadier, LXVI Panzer Corps, 3rd Panzer Army, SS Northland Panzer Grenadiers. All by now were shadow formations exercising ad hoc command over constantly changing orders of battle that meant nothing except in a wire diagram. The tanks and assault guns that remained went down by ones and twos, on streets and in neighborhoods with names all too familiar.
No narrative of the Reich’s final days can be called typical. Let one stand nevertheless for many. The 249th Assault Gun Brigade was evacuated from West Prussia, reorganized and reinforced, and picked up new guns in Spandau, at the factory itself. It went into action in Berlin on April 27. In three days it destroyed 180 Soviet AFVs—at least by its own reckoning—and had only nine guns left. They fought in the heart of Berlin: on Frankfurter Allee, around the Technische Hochschule, across Alexanderplatz. One of the officers was hanged by an SS flying squad, presumably for “cowardice.” Another received the Knight’s Cross for valor.
On May 5, Hitler’s death was announced. The CO called his men together, and it was decided to break out toward the Elbe. In the darkness, the brigade lost contact. Half cut its way through to the Elbe. The other half, three guns, came under Russian fire. The lead vehicle took a direct hit. The next one got stuck. The third came to help, saw the second gun blown apart, and was itself disabled. Its crew escaped. The 249th had fought to the last gun and the last round. Adolf Hitler had long been aware the war was lost. Instead of a glorious final victory, he sought a heroic downfall, a Wagnerian Götterdammerung. What he achieved was in macrocosm the fate of this single small unit: downfall in chaos.